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Reformed Christianity at its Best

Why Robert Godfrey believes Dort saved the Reformation

In Saving the Reformation (Reformation Trust, 2019) Robert Godfrey, president and professor emeritus of church history at Westminster Seminary California, sets out to, “Help churches and Christians appreciate and study the synod and its canons” (2). The book is divided into three Parts with five Appendices at the end.


Part I gives historical and theological background to the Synod. Godfrey has done the church a service, taking his immense knowledge of Dort, the area of his 1974 dissertation, and summarizing the highlights in two relatively short chapters where he neither vilifies the opponents (Arminius and the Remonstrants) nor soft-soaps the Synod. He does interject a little humor, noting that one two-hour Arminian speech “finally came to the part for which they had all been eagerly waiting: the end,” and that one Dutch Calvinist got so angry with a German Calvinist, that he challenged him to a gun duel on the floor of the Synod (25).

Part II is the author’s own translation of the Canons of Dort. Godfrey calls it “the central part of the book” (2). Since the canons were originally written for the church in a way that it could be understandable, Godfrey does not dumb-down the language, but simply breaks up the Latin, making it easier to read today. It is good to have the primary source right there.

Part III is Godfrey’s exposition of the five heads of doctrine contained in the canons. It is the longest part of the book. It begins with a short but very helpful section on the shape of the Canons. Many think the Five Heads of Dort correspond to the five points of the TULIP. This is not the case, and Godfrey explains why the canons appear as they do.

The Five Heads of Dort

Predestination is the “central issue” of the debate (85), thus, it is tackled first (Head 1). Early on, Godfrey names a number of delegates. One includes John Davenant, an English divine, who had “a significant voice in the discussions on the second head of doctrine” (23). The second Head deals with the atonement. Davenant held to a form of universal atonement, but not in an Arminian sense. He followed the much older view that Christ’s death was sufficient for the whole world in a real and actual sense, but efficient only for the elect. It was a respected, though minority, position at Dort.

How does Godfrey deal with this? He briefly describes this dispute upfront (113) and does an adequate job of explaining that Dort was in fact a compromise document with other orthodox Calvinists and that “the Calvinist theologians could be flexible in uniting against serious errors” (115-116). Their compromise very much reflects Davenant’s position. Its prayer for those in error show the synod as sincerely trying to be pastoral, removed from the anger and bitterness that sometimes characterized theological debate Click To Tweet

Things might get a little confusing in Heads 3-4, because Arminians actually held a stated view of depravity that was perfectly orthodox (17, 81). The problem was an inconsistent application which revealed, at best, a logical problem in the system. Thus, the Five Heads of doctrine could not be a one-to-one rebuttal. In these Heads, Godfrey explains why total depravity and irresistible grace are not separated in the canons.

In the fifth Head, Godfrey explains that, “The doctrine of perseverance embraced by the Reformed was perhaps their most unique doctrine” (153). The Conclusion of the Canons follows the previous Heads and Articles with commentary. There are important remarks here on Scripture alone. The Conclusion also explains the fair treatment of the Arminians by the synod, but also how they were the disruptors of the peace within the Reformed churches, especially in the form of “six lies” (175) against Reformed orthodoxy. This Conclusion is an “appeal for fairness,” and, “its prayer for those in error show the synod as sincerely trying to be pastoral, removed from the anger and bitterness that sometimes characterized theological debate in the decade before the synod … This conclusion does capture the spirit of Reformed Christianity at its best” (177-78).

Helpful Appendices

The book finishes with several Appendices. Godfrey first takes a fresh look at Arminius (Appendix 1). Then, he explains the general pattern of the heads of doctrine of the canons, something quite helpful for understanding why something so often presented as a simple acronym today is actually more complicated than the beautiful Dutch perennial known as the TULIP might lead you to believe (Appendix 2). Next, he provides a helpful outline of the canons (Appendix 3) with a table based on this outline describing the relationship between the positive articles of the canons to their rejection of errors (Appendix 4).

Last, Godfrey summarizes the Synod’s doctrinal statement on the Sabbath, a lesser known work of the Synod they composed while waiting for the Arminians to answer their summons and arrive at the meetings (Appendix 5). As with the Canons themselves, written not for scholars but the church at large, Godfrey’s book compliments his subject matter. Click To Tweet

Strengths and Weaknesses

Most of the commentary in Saving the Reformation is quite short and would make for an excellent teacher’s study guide on this subject, though sometimes (like the discussion on Head 1, Rejection 5 “Foreseen faith and middle knowledge,” pp. 106-08) I found myself wanting more explanation. Godfrey is not only a scholar, but a pastor. This comes through in every section of the book and this makes the work much more than a head-trip for theologians. As with the Canons themselves, written not for scholars but the church at large, Godfrey’s book compliments his subject matter.

The book does come with a Scripture and Subject Index, but as this is in part a historical survey of the Synod, I would have benefited greatly from a bibliographical appendix listing other reading material on this fascinating historical event (both old and new, pro and con). If not that, at least a works cited page of any kind would have been something.

Godfrey set out to help us appreciate and study the synod and its canons. The book is narrowly focused on that end, to which it succeeds nicely.

Douglas Van Dorn

Douglas Van Dorn (M.Div. Denver Seminary) is the author of several books on the supernatural and Reformed theology. He has pastored the same church for 18 years, co-hosted radio shows and podcasts, and has served on national boards for Baptist associations.

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